Chef Toya Boudy grew up in New Orleans, and refused to give up her roots to blend in when she became a private chef and television celebrity. She has competed on “Food Network Star” and appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Best Home Cook,” in addition to publishing two cookbooks.
Boudy encourages Black youth to embrace food as an expression of their culture. In this Voices in Food story, she talks about why we need to embrace our individual and cultural identities rather than fit into the mold.
I grew up in a poor Black neighborhood of New Orleans. My Jamaican father had lived in the Magnolia projects of New Orleans and my Creole mother shared a tight space with five siblings uptown. They worked two jobs each to support our family of five. I first started cooking at the age of 9, simply because we were hungry. I cut a potato and made French fries from scratch.
Ever since I was a kid, I was always in trouble. I was put out of preschool because I tried to escape. I was not what you would consider to be “a good student.” I was punished at home and at summer school, and was not allowed to watch television or play outside. My parents carried a “sugar or shit” vibe — it’s either this or it’s that. They didn’t know how to deal with me, so I was indoors a whole lot, left alone with my imagination.
In 10th grade, I started working after school at a store, where I got involved with an older man and got pregnant. I spent my 16th birthday at Planned Parenthood considering my options. The adults had no hope for me. I internalized all the pain that I had caused my parents, but my self-destructive behavior continued.
“When you grow up in the time of segregation, you want to fit in rather than stand out. Individuality comes with a cost in a world where what’s normal is typically Caucasian.”
Growing up in NOLA, colloquialism was riddled throughout my home. We were low income but had a rich cultural lifestyle. I was always around living beauty, be it art, sculpture or music. That helped me discover my own talents. Food was always my love language, but it was later in life that I pursued it as a career. However, I didn’t take the traditional path. I worked at a bank, performed poetry and studied arts at Dillard University. Everyone knew me as an artist only, though I was in a culinary program on and off for 14 years.
I attended the Nunez Community College culinary arts program and studied under chef Ruth Varisco. It wasn’t a traditional path. I didn’t work at a restaurant and rise to the top. But all along, I was my authentic self rather than someone I was expected to be.
When I first went on camera, my mama was concerned about my looks. She did not want me to wear an Afro or show my tattoos, but I didn’t want to denounce being a true Black woman either. Truthfully, she did not want me to get rejected for my appearance, as she had been when she sought employment. And she had a good reason for that. When you grow up in the time of segregation, you want to fit in rather than stand out. Individuality comes with a cost in a world where what’s normal is typically Caucasian. And this is true not just for African Americans, but all minorities. That’s why you try to water down your accents, look and behave in a way that’s considered more “American.”
Sure, I was shunned out of group conversations about Napa Valley because I didn’t know where that was. Other contestants did not take me seriously — as the only Black woman, they thought I wasn’t any worthy competition. Stylists tried to put me in balloon pastel dresses, which was so against my style, being a curvy hourglass Black woman. They spoke to me like I was trash. These prejudices occurred so often that I had to develop a stance, but without coming across as “the mad Black woman.” I had to communicate calmly, define my character and earn respect.
When I started doing live cooking demos, people judged me based on my looks and not my food. They didn’t expect me to be dolled up in bright clothes, tattoos, long nails and colorful braided hair. They would taste my food and ask me, “You cooked this?” The other chefs were not getting the same attention. I knew it was based on stereotypes of what a chef was expected to look like.
That’s a big reason I put all my business out in my new book, “Cooking for the Culture: Recipes and Stories from the New Orleans Streets to the Table.” I didn’t want people to focus on my looks, and wanted them to take me seriously. I talked about all my struggles of being a poor student, getting pregnant as a teenager, having low self-esteem and being in abusive relationships. I expressed myself freely, in an unapologetic way. And I also talked about my achievements — of being a successful business woman, mother, chef and performer. The idea was to make people look at me differently.
“Food is a good place to start the conversation about stereotypes. For example, why is watermelon associated with a mocked caricature of dark bug-eyed people sitting in the field, and why is soul food perceived as unhealthy?”
If you ever looked down on people from the ghetto and blamed them for making poor choices, ask yourself why were those people pushed into a specific area or a project? What help do they have? What impacted their mindset in the first place?
If you wonder why Black people are loud and colorful, act or dress a certain way, trace it back to our roots in Africa. Think deeper about where these stereotypes originate. Who told you that a certain look is from the hood? Pick up the strings, be intrigued, research the truth and reassess your beliefs. I believe that stereotypes come from wanting to comprehend, but not understanding the differences in cultures.
Food is a good place to start the conversation about stereotypes. For example, why is watermelon associated with a mocked caricature of dark bug-eyed people sitting in the field, and why is soul food perceived as unhealthy?
During the pandemic, I started teaching history classes through food for the platform Reconstruction U.S. I wanted folks to know about the foods they consumed every day and how it got there. I started doing a “you didn’t know this was African!” series of fun facts where I told Black history in a more positive way ― how watermelon grows in sand, had so many health benefits, and was served to kings. By shifting your focus, you can find beauty in everything and give it the honor it deserves.